Back to my old tricks

By the end of college I knew that my music degree was not what God was calling me to use professionally. Where I ended up instead was doing camp counseling and then outdoor education for the next year, experience that marked me for life. Among the ways in which this time impacted me was what I learned about life in community and group dynamics. One of my favorite activities was variously called “group initiatives,” or the “ropes course” and other similar names. I loved running my groups through difficult challenges that forced them to learn to work as a team, listen to and respect each other, and honor the weaker members. After every challenge we would debrief and learn lessons about relationships and the way the Body of Christ functions (that is how it does and should function) that we would apply to the next activity, to cooking out, to all aspects of community life. Koinonia became my favorite word.

This work became the model (indeed unconsciously) for my work in Richmond to pull together leaders across the city and make a team out of them who would work together for the city’s transformation. God had me serving as convenor, team builder, and administrator for a pretty tough group of heads of ministries, churches, and businesses. While it lasted, it was a blast. Whether it was too big for me, or whether it was a vision ahead of its time, I don’t know, but I see now that God was working on me for the next phase of life here in St. Petersburg. Of course I don’t fully see that vision, even though I have clues.

All this to say that I got a surprise invitation in May to help a struggling group of kids become a “kollectif” (a team). The principal of the school our boys attend asked out of the blue if I had any team building experience. It seems their 6th graders were having a hard time getting along and accepting new kids (who were still coming in late in the year). My answer was all she needed, and we set a date.

I took them to the small island/park that is located between the school and our apartment.
It’s one of my favorite places around – took some great pictures there last fall. Joining us was Lydia, which I justified since she is not much younger, and since she actually feels not accepted by her age group at church (some of these kids also attend our church). This would give them an opportunity to accept a new outsider.

We spent the whole day doing group-building activities using “props” from around the island that I had scoped out in the days preceding. We started with simple things like “trust falls” (1st picture) and built up to a river crossing challenge (#2), and an “escape” (#3).


I’ve led scores of these kinds of activities with hundreds of kids exactly this age, but I was really taken aback by what I saw.

It wasn’t just that they were hard to control from talking or not listening; I’ve seen plenty of that.

It wasn’t just that they didn’t follow directions; they didn’t care.

It wasn’t just that they didn’t listen to each other in planning their activities; they were slow to do so when it was discovered.

It wasn’t just that they rode roughshod over each others emotions when they got hurt; they had no clue how to be sensitive to those emotions when they knew they needed to make up. I like to hold back and let the group work through things on their own, but these guys made me spoon feed them every step of the way. Even poor groups from the States had a better relational base on which to build than these guys. The girls were more clueless than the boys at handling the emotions of others.

And it wasn’t that they were mean or even unkind. It wasn’t that they were resistant or slow. In fact they were quite teachable.

I didn’t know what to make of it all. Of course I fear that this is a general weakness, which was a depressing conclusion to come to, considering these were Christian kids (which actually does make a big difference in this society) from (mainly) 2 strong mature fellowships. My head spun that evening and next day. What was God saying to me? On the one hand, it makes me want to get more involved in the school and our church. On the other, it overwhelms me with the enormity of the problem. Is it too late to work with adults? I doubt it, but it sure underscores my conviction that I need to work with a few deeply rather than with a lot superficially.

And Lydia, she finally got accepted at the very last minute (almost literally) of the day, when she pulled something I’d never seen. I’ll let her tell you about it at her blog here.

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